Confessions of an NFL Hitman
Harrison, photographed at home with his own guns — an FN Five-Seven pistol and a Smith & Wesson 460V revolver.
Credit: Nathaniel Welch

Up here in an end-of-time exurb called Troon, carved high into the bluffs above Scottsdale, Arizona, it's all Charles Darwin and sun-split rocks, life forms baked to the core. Diamondbacks and scorpions slip through the gates of the copper-colored homes in these hills, while wild boar joust with gaunt coyotes over trash cans pushed to the curb. Even in May, the heat is a monster, pressing its breath on you in the haze.

It's no more imposing, though, than the force that awaits me as I swing my Jeep onto the apron of a three-car driveway. He answers the door wearing only a towel and a glare that could scare away bats. "You're early," growls James Harrison, the black-hat linebacker of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the scourge of the National Football League's vexed campaign to check concussive tackles. "You said noon. It's five of," he goes on, letting the scowl linger a beat.

It's his signature expression, the one he shows reporters who dare ask him questions after practice and the one he turned on Roger Goodell when the commissioner of the league summoned Harrison to his office last fall to explain his knockout hits. Harrison's attendance in New York was all but mandatory: He had hung up furiously on Goodell after calling him to challenge an enormous fine, one of several he got last year. The meeting went poorly, by all accounts, and Harrison ended the season the NFL's most heavily fined player in a single season, with $100,000 in levies.

Harrison, who lives in a suburb north of Pittsburgh, has come to Arizona to heal and train after back surgery over the winter, and he is bored and antagonized by the desert. "There's snakes out there. I grabbed a rattler by his tail and threw him over the fence last month."

You grabbed a rattler bare-handed?

"Had to," he says. "My son was here visiting, so that bitch had to bounce out. ASAP."

Yes, of course, James Harrison grabs poisonous snakes and twirls them overhead with trumpets blaring. This is the man who seized Vince Young and dunked the Titans quarterback, all 230 pounds of him, headfirst into the turf like a cruller. This is the man who knocked two Cleveland Browns cold in the span of seven minutes last year and then baited Goodell with his postgame comments, saying he liked to "hurt" opponents. He amended that in the next breath, saying he tried to inflict pain without causing serious injury, but it sounded like lawyer-ese and was ignored.

He turns on his heel without further remark and disappears down the hall to get dressed. He's remarkably short for a bull-rush linebacker, going 6 feet (barely) without socks and cleats, but marvelously carved for a man of 250, with delts and calves like bocce balls and thunderous, smooth-shaved quads. (The only hair on Harrison is the pointy beard he's been trying to grow all spring. He's kept his skull bald since his sophomore year of high school, when he approached his opponents before a game, doffed his helmet to show his new-mown pate, and told them they were going to die that day.)

He comes back in a Nike tee and black mesh shorts that cover his shins. It's the getup he'll sport for the next three days, wearing it to steakhouses, where men in Brioni stare at him in pique, and to jewel-box bistros, where ladies who lunch glower at him over lobster salad. Harrison makes just under $9 million a year and has closets full of handmade, brightly colored suits that he wears when the mood arises. But in lily-white Scottsdale, where he barely knows a soul, he couldn't care less about the feelings of the local swells or their custom of donning socks to dine in public. My world, my terms, his outfit announces.

Which is another way of saying that Harrison – refreshingly – is the same guy off the field as on, working through an old and complicated grudge about being disrespected. Having to pay his way to college (and Kent State at that) after a brilliant but suspension-filled high school career; going undrafted as a pass-rush linebacker in '02 despite setting a school record for sacks in a season; and getting cut four times, three by the Steelers, in favor of players with far less strength and speed: That is jet fuel to him and always has been, the reason you can't get him to take a down off. Harrison, who played in agony last season with lower-back woes he didn't report (he never missed a series, let alone a start), had a discectomy after Pittsburgh's loss to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, then flew here in March, three weeks post-surgery, to push like a madman with fitness guru Ian Danney. Six days a week, he is up at first light to train in Danney's sweatbox gym, running in hot sand pits and doing backward hurdles after giant leg-press sets. But he is back home by 10 am, and that leaves the rest of the day to text and tweet – and seethe over last season's insults. The fines, the flags, his branding as a thug: They try his soul long after the fact, trailing him to this posh but desolate place, where even the air burns and crackles.

"My rep is James Harrison, mean son of a bitch who loves hitting the hell out of people," he says. "But up until last year, there was no word of me being dirty – till Roger Goodell, who's a crook and a puppet, said I was the dirtiest player in the league. If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn't do it. I hate him and will never respect him."

Thus begins a three-day bonfire rant that burns far and wide before it stops, scorching the commissioner and his top assistants, the studio analysts at two networks, and the stars and franchises he most despises, none more than the New England Patriots. The diatribe is wildly impolitic and starts fights that no one needs, least of all Harrison. But along the way it says timely things about violence in the NFL and stops to consider, however tersely, the effect of all those hits upon himself. And that, more than anything – more than the grudges, the name-calling – makes Harrison worth hearing.